Poet Simon Soloman declared that the generation of people who came from the Caribbean during the 1950’s and ‘60’s should be named the ‘Divine Generation’ because they are made in the image of the Divine and should not be defined by the name of a merchant vessel, the Empire Windrush (He pointed out that one of the first slave ships was named ‘Jesus’).

He was among a host of contributors to an event held at St Francis Parish Centre in Handsworth on 29th July as part of the celebration of the 75th anniversary of the arrival of the MV Empire Windrush bringing people from the Caribbean (then part of the British Empire) answering the call of the ‘Mother Country’ to help rebuild Britain after the devastation of World War II.

Despite facing hostility, discrimination and hardship they and their descendants have become part of the fabric of our society and culture.

Miss Culture Jam (Ita Gooden) with Chaplain Fr Damian Ozokwere

The event was organised by members of the West Indian Catholic Chaplaincy with funding from Birmingham City Council. It was hosted by the Chaplaincy’s own Ita Gooden, AKA Performance Poet Miss Culture Jam.

Opening with a colourful display of Caribbean islands’ flags and national dress and a song from Birmingham Settlement Choir, the audience of 150 heard the stories of several members of the Chaplaincy recounting their experiences of coming to England.  A recurring phrase was being greeted by the notices for ‘No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs’.

Nurse and midwife Elsie Gayle spoke of the essential contributions of people from the Caribbean to the development of the NHS, and RAF veteran Donald Campbell highlighted the contribution of Caribbean people to the armed forces in both World Wars and to the present day, pointing to Grenadian Johnson Beharry who was awarded the Victoria Cross in 2004.  A 98 year-old World War II veteran was present at the evening.

The keynote speaker was historian Dr Tony Talburt of Birmingham City University, who pointed out that there were black people in Britain before the Anglo-Saxons, in the person of Emperor Septimus Severus and members of the Roman army, drawn from throughout the Roman Empire. 

In terms of migration to Britain after World War II, this was driven in part by poor living conditions and lack of work in the Caribbean; but he also said that movement between islands and to the US on a short term basis to earn money and return home was common in the Caribbean; this was the expectation of many of those coming here, but living costs and discrimination which kept many in low paid work meant that these expectations were not filled. So they ended up settling here permanently and raising families.

We heard from Chester Morrison how reggae music went from a form of entertainment among people for their own enjoyment to an international phenomenon which was eventually awarded heritage status by the United Nations.

Turning points bringing it to international attention were Miss Millie’s ‘My Boy Lollipop’ and Desmond Dekker’s ‘The Israelites’ (which became no 1 in Israel…).  Bob Marley’s ‘Redemption Song’ was written to celebrate the independence of Zimbabwe, underlining the genre’s identification with liberation.

We were treated to a delightful rendition of Mozart on the steel pan by Norman Stewart, AKA PanMaestro. Originating in Trinidad, the steel pan was the result of colonial masters outlawing the use of drums by African slaves for fear that they were being used to pass messages. People resorted to using bamboo sticks then tin lids and eventually developed the steel pan. 

A steel band was showcased at the Festival of Britain in 1951 where they demonstrated that all kinds of music could be played on them.

Other contributions included diabetes campaigner Tony Kelly, saxophonist Janice Price (AKA A#sharp), poets Miss P and Barrington, singers Linton Kelly, Yvonne Love and Nadiine Daniiels and music from DJ Fitz.

Guests of Honour included Mgr Danny McHugh who founded the West Indian Chaplaincy in 1974 and was its first Chaplain, Rev Canon Eve Pitt, Mgr Timothy Menezes, and the current Chaplain, Fr Damian Ozokwere CSSp.

Thanks are also due to Fr Kelly of St Francis Parish and the team at the Parish Centre for their warm welcome and help to make the evening a success.

The Chaplaincy are planning a Health and Wellbeing information session on 16th September at their Centre in Bayswater Road, Birchfield B20. Look out for more information!

Ann Kelly

West Indian Chaplaincy

Article featured in the September edition of The Voice: